From the Vice-Chancellor
In Australian Higher Education Research Policies and Performance 1987 – 2010, Frank Larkins profiles policy developments in Australian Higher Education.
As Professor of Chemistry and a long-serving Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, Professor Larkins is a national expert on research policy. His book argues the case for research, not as fundamental to universities, but for the contribution research makes to the nation and world.
Research funding enables some of Australia’s brightest minds to push out the frontiers of human knowledge, and uses that knowledge to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.
Australia has decided that research is integral to the mission of every university, and each institution has examples of intellectual property developed on campus and, in some form, taken out to the wider world.
Australia’s researchers are responsible for many world-first developments, including the bionic ear, designed at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Otolaryngology, and Gardasil, a cervical cancer vaccine developed at the University of Queensland.
As a comprehensive university, Melbourne supports research in fields as diverse as Bioinformatics, which concerns applying computer science and information technology to biology and medicine, Arts projects including a history of emotion, the digitisation of 1950s Chinese films, and a range of ongoing projects in my own field, public policy.
Such research offers far-reaching benefits for the community. The School of Population Health, for example, supports a project to eliminate the blinding eye disease Trachoma from Australia. Others model more effective markets, new forms of integrated circuits on tiny microchips, and new forms of prosthetics for those who have lost limbs to disease or injury. Through research we extend knowledge, communicate complexity and build the store of human capability.
Australians are good at research – exploration of new ideas finds a welcome home in our universities and research institutions. The strength of the Australian research cohort is recognised internationally; last month’s publication of the Shanghai Jiao Tong 2011 Academic Ranking of World Universities saw four of the country’s 39 universities ranked in the top 100.
Though university ranking is not a precise science, the ARWU rankings are the latest in a series of positive indicators at home and abroad that local research can match standards elsewhere in the research world.
They are a tribute to the dedication of our talented staff, vindicating research leadership and performance in recent years. The University strives to undertake research of global significance, and this assessment recognises our international reach.
Yet the research system has its own stresses and strains – short-term funding that makes careers hard to plan or manage, modest success rates in most competitive schemes, and measures of success that struggle to value the contribution of the visual and performing arts or humanities.
As the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans, has acknowledged: This is a time of generational change in the Australian higher education sector. Higher education has made and will continue to make modern Australia, and research and research funding are intrinsic to our success and growth as a nation.
In the last line of his book, Frank Larkins says: “The principle challenge [in future] will be to ensure that there is sufficient political will in our resource-rich country to make the investments necessary to maintain a world-class Higher Education system in the decades to come.”
It is an elegant summary of an important national project.